Accountability and Transparency: Keys to Security in the Cloud

By Phil Lieberman (Profile)
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Wednesday, May 19th 2010
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Safeguarding a cloud infrastructure from unmonitored access, malware and intruder attacks grows more challenging for service providers as their operations evolve. And as a cloud infrastructure grows, so too does the presence of unsecured privileged identities – those so-called super-user accounts that hold elevated permission to access sensitive data, run programs, and change configuration settings on virtually every IT component.  Privileged identities exist on all physical and virtual operating systems, on network devices such as routers, switches, and firewalls, and in programs and services including databases, line-of-business applications, Web services, middleware, VM hypervisors and more.

Left unsecured, privileged accounts leave an organization vulnerable to IT staff members who have unmonitored access to sensitive customer data and can change configuration settings on critical components of your infrastructure through anonymous, unaudited access.  Unsecured privileged accounts can also lead to financial loss from failed regulatory audits such as PCI-DSS, HIPAA, SOX and other standards that require privileged identity controls.

One of the largest challenges for consumers of cloud services is attaining transparency into how a public cloud provider is securing its infrastructure. For example, how are identities being managed and secured? Many cloud providers won’t give their customers much more of an answer than a SAS 70 certification. How can we trust in the cloud if the vendors of cloud-based infrastructures neglect to implement both the process and technology to assure that segregation of duties are enforced, and customer and vendor identities are secured?

The Cloud Vendor’s Challenge: Accountability

Cloud computing has the potential to transform business technology, but it brings security issues that IT organizations should consider before trusting their sensitive data to the cloud. These issues should cause security experts and auditors to rethink many fundamental assumptions about Privileged Identity Management in terms of who is responsible for managing these powerful privileged accounts, how they manage them, and who exactly is in control.

Historically, IT data centers have always been in secured physical locations. Now, with cloud computing, those locations are no longer maintained directly by the IT organization. So the questions are these: how do you get accountability for management of physical assets that are no longer under your physical control, and exactly what control mechanisms are in place? Can you trust your cloud vendor to secure your most sensitive data? Moreover, if there’s a security breach in the cloud, who is to blame? Is it the cloud vendor that disclaims all legal liability in its contract, or an enterprise that relinquishes control of its sensitive data in the first place?

Cloud computing promises to make IT more efficient and deliver more consistent service levels. However, there’s a paradox that when it comes to security (and control over privileged identities in particular) cloud services are often among the least efficient. Many cloud service providers’ processes – based on ad-hoc techniques like scripting of password changes – are slow, expensive and unreliable. And that’s dangerous.